Jacob, Esau, and Jewish-Arab Partnership

15 December 2022
By: Hannah Jensen, NIF Rabbinic Fellow

This week in our Torah reading we finished the story of Jacob and Esau, the two brothers seemingly destined for friction and struggle. Many of us were taught, early in our lives, that of the two of these brothers, our allegiance was to Jacob. He is, after all, one of our forefathers, one of the people we are descended from, one of the ancestors we look to for guidance and wisdom. And as such we should organize ourselves against Esau – the other brother, the one who sought to kill Jacob, the one who, our commentators tell us, even at their reunion after 20 years, embraced Jacob only to attempt to bite him.

This last understanding – that Esau tried to bite Jacob at their reunion – comes from our commentators’ belief that Esau continued to have a deep hatred for Jacob from many decades earlier. But there is a midrash (rabbinic biblical interpretation) that says something else. It says that Esau did not arrive at that moment full of hatred and wanting to bite Jacob. But that, in fact, in that moment something changed for him. Yes their history was fraught, but in that moment he embraced his brother with his full heart.

We were always taught that Esau was the bad guy. From the beginning. From Hebrew school and even from our commentators. But as we look at the story now, it’s harder to see it that way. Jacob stole a birthright and a blessing from his brother Esau, establishing himself as the older brother, fled, built a separate life, and didn’t encounter his brother for decades. And with that information, if we look at it again, it’s more understandable that Esau harbored deep distrust of Jacob. But we encounter this kind of pattern so often. This polarization and sides-taking in the name of protecting ourselves and our ‘people,’ whatever people that might be.

This week I was lucky enough to meet with the NIF grantee Omdim Beyachad and hear from two of its leaders Sally Abed and Alon Lee Green. In our conversation someone asked about how to sit in the tension and conflict in shared spaces, how to move through those moments. And Sally said very clearly, ‘The first thing I say is that if you are pro-Palestinian in the U.S. you have to be pro-Israeli people. That legitimizing the Jewish-Arab partnership continuously is necessary to build the political will to end the occupation. And that is what we say to Palestinians, and we say the same thing to Jews.’ This moment really stunned me. It helped to articulate something I had first heard expressed many years ago when I was studying in Jerusalem. I had a teacher who taught a class on the Torah of Human Rights and he said that his framework for his commitment to Israel/Palestine was a ‘human rights framework’ and that that meant he was equally committed to address any attacks on human rights on either side. It wasn’t until this meeting with Omdim Beyachad that I felt the reverberations of that truth again, though I had carried it in me for many years.

And it reminded me of Jacob and Esau. It reminded me of the struggle between two brothers, two peoples, who had been taught to vilify the other for many many years, and as such grew further and further apart. Until they had to meet again and were faced with a choice: carry on the hatred that had been seeded in them along the way, or choose a different path.

And as the midrash tells us – Esau chose a different path. He chose to see his humanity equally bound up with his brother’s. He saw his love for his family and his people he had created as inextricable from the life of his brother and his family and his people. He chose to believe in the possibility of their partnership.

That is what Omdim Beyachad modeled for me this week. A reminder that what we have been told is not what we have to believe. That siloing groups from each other in the name of solidarity or protection is actually doing the opposite – causing real harm and preventing people from knowing each other and hearing each other. May we all remember, as we go into the rule of this new extremely right-wing Israeli government, that all of our humanity is bound up in each other’s, that the only path forward toward ending the occupation and toward a shared future is a deep commitment to the connections between Jews and Palestinians and loving all people in that sacred land.

Hannah Jensen, NIF Rabbinic Fellow

Hannah Jensen is a student at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, California. She is currently participating in NIF’s Elissa Froman Social Change Fellowship, a year-long opportunity for future rabbis and cantors to engage in deep learning about social issues in Israel.